NEW YORK, United States — In recent years, the main fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris have attracted unprecedented interest from end consumers, with brands live streaming their shows and bloggers reporting from the runway in realtime on their sites and social channels like Twitter and Instagram. But in most cases, the actual clothes showcased during fashion week aren’t available to consumers until many months after the shows have finished.
In short, fashion’s communication cycle has become wildly out of sync with its retail cycle. Would the film industry ever hold a movie premiere 6 months ahead of its release to the public? Would Apple make its buzzy product announcements a half-year before said products were available for sale?
By shortening lead times, planning production in advance, and using other lean manufacturing techniques, fashion brands may be able to get product to consumers more quickly. But these kinds of structural changes could take years to implement, especially as many fashion brands do not control the means of production.
One solution has been to let consumers order — but not receive — products immediately after the shows. Mega-brands like Burberry have offered pre-ordering for several seasons now, while a number of mid-sized and emerging brands have collaborated with ‘pre-tail’ trunk-show start-up Moda Operandi to do the same. But market reports suggest that the sales volume of pre-orders has been limited. There are only so many consumers who are willing to plonk down money in advance to guarantee they will get a specific garment in their size months later. Most consumers still seem to prefer to purchase in-season, close to the time of need.
So if enabling consumers to pre-order clothes is not the ideal solution, why not engage consumers just before the collections arrive in store? Based on the evidence of blowout events from Victoria’s Secret and H&M for Versace in New York earlier this month, consumer appetite for this kind of engagement, and the impact it has on sales, seem very promising indeed.
VICTORIA’S SECRET’S GLOBAL FASHION EXTRAVAGANZA
The annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show is quite possibly the largest fashion event of its kind. From its humble beginnings in August 1995, with a budget of only $120,000, the Victoria’s Secret show has grown into a blockbuster multi-media event, with six different themes, featuring 38 models in 69 different looks, and costing more than $13m this year.
“Our show is seen, in one way or another, in over 200 countries in print, Facebook, YouTube, and television specials,” explained Ed Razek, Chief Marketing Officer of creative services of Limited Brands (the parent company of Victoria’s Secret) as we sat backstage before the first of two tapings of this year’s show. “It is must-watch television for young women in the United States. They learn to walk in high heels in this show.”
While Mr. Razek explained how Victoria’s Secret has honed the show format over the past 16 years, Kanye West and the assembled Victoria’s Secret models were doing a backstage photo call in a crush of assembled media from China to Brazil. It could only be described as an all out media frenzy.
“Candidly, I think [the first show] was an aesthetic failure,” he said. “We didn’t much know what we were doing, except the next day papers all over the world were calling it the lingerie event of the century. We knew that we had an idea.”
Over the years, the production values of the show and the quality of the collection have improved dramatically. Just last year, the brand began working with respected stylist and fashion editor, Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou, who is better known for her work with high-end fashion designers like Roland Mouret and Antonio Berardi. This year, Ms. Neophitou-Apostolou spent more than 40 days working on Victoria’s Secret runway collection, providing her input throughout the creative process.
Another parameter that has changed over the years is timing. The first show back in 1995 was held in August. For several years after that, the shows were held in the days preceding Valentine’s Day. But since 2001, the show has taken place in November, just in time for the holiday season. “Christmas is the single biggest commercial opportunity of the year and it’s also a great time to do a fashion show special,” said Mr. Razek. This year’s show was taped on November 9th and will air on November 29th on CBS, one of the three major American broadcast television networks.
Interestingly, the Victoria’s Secret show is not broadcast live, which Mr. Razek says comes down to maintaining production values and managing risk. “You’re on network television in the United States. It is our responsibility to show our girls in their best light,” he said. “The reward isn’t worth the risk. We want a beautifully produced show; something that is compelling and interesting.” In 2004, the Victoria’s Secret show was cancelled in the wake of the backlash following Janet Jackson’s so-called ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during the Superbowl half-time show.
But even without a live broadcast, Mr. Razek said: “You see sales results almost immediately. On the night of the show you see substantial increases in our web business from all of the news coverage. The day after the fashion show runs [on television], you see substantial increases in our web business.”
While he declined to provide any detailed numbers to back this up, Victoria’s Secret Direct, which includes both the online and catalogue businesses, chalked up $1.5 billion in sales in 2010, roughly one-third of Victoria’s Secret’s overall sales. To provide a sense of scale, this makes Victoria’s Secret Direct about twice the size of Neiman Marcus Direct ($715 million in revenues in 2010) and more than eight times the size of Yoox or Net-a-Porter (about $200 million in annual sales each).
But importantly, the Victoria’s Secret show is about more than just driving online sales. It is the cornerstone of an integrated communications strategy that drives brand awareness as well as bolstering revenue across direct retail, catalogue and online channels.
Indeed, an integrated communications and sales strategy has long been part of the Victoria’s Secret DNA. According to a case study published in 2002 by Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College, when Leslie Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982, he sought to make it “stand [out] as an integrated world-class brand. Across all channels — catalogue, stores, Internet — the same products are launched at the same time, in exactly the same way, with the same quality, and same positioning."
When asked to compare Victoria’s Secret’s marketing and communications initiatives to those deployed by luxury fashion brands, Mr. Razek offered: “The obvious difference is that we’re showing fashion in real-time, during the season, things that are accessible in the stores now. They are showing Fall in Spring, Spring in Fall. How does the end customer connect with that, particularly with all of the live-streaming?”
“They’re living in the past,” he concluded. “There aren’t three fashion magazines anymore…the world is so broad, there are so many opportunities to communicate. You have to take advantage of them all. My personal opinion is that a substantial portion of the designer community is involved in an exercise of mass collective denial.”
H&M FOR VERSACE INCITES PANDEMONIUM
The day before the Victoria’s Secret show, H&M put on its own fashion spectacle in New York to celebrate its latest high-fashion collaboration, this time with Versace. With 500 fashion editors, bloggers and media from all over the world in town to cover the show, and a celebrity red carpet entrance to rival that of a major Hollywood event, this was another striking example of timing integrated brand communications to coincide with the arrival of product in stores.
The event began with a fashion show in an elaborate replica of the Versace show space in Milan at Pier 57, overlooking the Hudson River. When the show concluded, a beaming Donatella Versace unveiled a vast room behind the show space, filled with disco balls and an intimate stage set, where rising hiphop star Nicki Minaj soon took to the stage, decked out in Versace for H&M. Ms. Minaj’s performance was followed by an unforgettable thirty minute set from pop legend Prince.
All the while, anecdotes, photos and videos were being beamed out to the world via the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts of the attendees. When the concert eventually concluded at 15 minutes past midnight, the walls opened up once more to reveal a fully-stocked Versace for H&M pop-up store, which created pandemonium unlike anything I have ever seen, and this, even amongst the fashion elite who have access to almost any kind of fashion they want.
As we waited in the crush to enter the store, someone asked American Vogue’s Hamish Bowles why he was subjecting himself to this kind of mob. “It’s all a part of the experience,” he said, gesturing towards the shoppers stripping the mannequins bare, just behind a thick layer of burly security guards who were doing their best to hold back the throng. “Please stand back,” they repeated. “There is plenty of stuff for everyone.”
As it turned out, the security guards were wrong; most of the garments were gone within minutes as the first wave of shoppers snapped up everything in sight, filling four or five or six bags each with clothes. It was not a luxury shopping experience, that’s for sure, and the huge demand was in no small part due to prices which started at $17.95 for a pair of men's printed underwear. But the collaboration couldn’t have come at a better time for Versace. It put a short, sharp spotlight on the once-struggling brand which is also having a bit of a fashion renaissance. East London creatives have been scouring vintage stores over the past couple of years to find vibrant Versace prints from the brand’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Versace was still at the head of the fashion vanguard.
“It is about bringing Versace to a whole new generation, and showing them the true essence of the house,” Donatella Versace told BoF. "Versace is already interacting with them in other ways. We are very active on Twitter and other social media. I think the Versace name is very powerful and the collaboration with H&M has allowed us to connect with even more people." The day after the New York event, the show video was already available online, and a quirky fashion film was also rolled out across the fashion blogosphere.
Commenting on the immediate communications formula employed by H&M to promote the collaboration, Ms. Versace said: “It made me think about how there are too many rules in fashion and how too often we get caught in these rules. I have never felt the need to follow the rules, but the system is so rigid these days with deadlines, so many collections to produce every year. This collaboration with H&M taught me that it was absolutely possible and necessary to break the rules.” she said. “I really enjoyed working with a company that felt very strongly that we had to push things further.”
Last week, the collection finally arrived in cities around the world just as the Versace for H&M show buzz was cresting online, selling out almost immediately and crashing the H&M website under the weight of consumer demand.
LESSONS FOR FASHION BRANDS
So, apart from synchronising the timing of brand communications and product delivery, what can a luxury fashion brand learn from these mass consumer fashion events?
Ms. Neophitou-Apostolou said that fashion brands need to learn to dream again. “It’s about selling the dream, that’s the main thing. Don’t be too literal. Create the fantasy. Don’t be afraid of it,” she suggested a few days later, at a lunch in honour of Antonio Berardi. “I think people become so concerned about: ‘Is it wearable; Is it wearable?’ McQueen in the day was always about fantasy. John Galliano was always about fantasy. Even Azzedine [Alaïa] takes you on a journey; in his little shows he creates his own universe. I think that’s the trick. Don’t be afraid to dream!”
That said, “every [look in the Victoria’s Secret show] has a piece of product so you can physically buy the pieces,” Ms. Neophitou-Apostolou continued, but these were mixed in with dream-like pieces including the now famous angel wings. "It's the best piece of marketing I've ever been involved with," she added.
Indeed, the consumer events in New York couldn’t have been more different from fashion shows designed for an industry audience. They must be conceived and designed to have maximum impact on screen, drive online conversation, and ultimately drive sales online and in-store.
Even for a behemoth like H&M, this kind of initiative requires a huge investment of time and resources. “It’s a huge undertaking to organise a fashion show for editors from all 41 markets," said Margareta van den Bosch, Creative Director of H&M.
What’s more, having an integrated supply chain from design to production to retail, makes it much easier to align the communications and sales cycles. According to the Tuck Business School case, Victoria’s Secret is “equipped with vertically integrated factories that manufacture and deliver goods directly to the company without the involvement of third party intermediaries.”
“We own all our own stores,” added Mr Razek. “There aren’t any buyers from department stores sitting in the front row writing orders. Our ultimate customer is not a merchant with a pencil, which is different from most designers.”
Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion